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The Democrats aren’t the real problem

The Pew Research Center’s latest poll about American attitudes towards Israel set off alarms—and not without reason. The survey showed the partisan gap with respect to Israel to be widening.

Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The Pew Research Center’s latest poll about American attitudes towards Israel set off alarms—and not without reason. The survey showed the partisan gap with respect to Israel to be widening. Whereas 79 percent of Republicans sympathize with Israel rather than the Palestinians, only 27 percent of Democrats side with the Jewish state. The gap between the two parties on the issue has widened considerably during the last 15 years. This has led many friends of Israel to worry that they are losing the Democrats. If these trends continue, then the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus that has prevailed in this country for a generation will wither as the topic becomes yet another issue on which Americans will have knee-jerk partisan responses.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with his predecessor, President Barack Obama, during Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Credit: DoD photo by U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Cristian L. Ricardo.

But while these concerns are real, another look at the same poll actually ought to lessen the sense of panic in the pro-Israel community. While the gap between the levels of enthusiasm for Israel between the two parties has increased markedly, Israel still has strong support across the board, with more Americans sympathizing with it than the Palestinians in virtually every demographic category. If friends of Israel want something to worry about, they should concentrate on what is happening in their own community. That’s especially true among the young where indifference to the Jewish state combined with rising hostility to Zionism among some is the real challenge facing the pro-Israel community. But here again, the usual explanation for this troubling trend—anger about Israeli government policies—misunderstands the problem.

The partisan gap on Israel can’t be ignored. As Pew points out in its summary, Democratic support for Israel has declined 11 percentage points since 2001. But the reason why overall backing for Israel hasn’t really budged—either in the Pew survey or in annual Gallup polls on the question—is that the number of Republicans who have become backers of the Jewish state has increased by an even greater margin during the same period. In the last 17 years, the number of Republicans who sympathize with Israel has risen a whopping 29 percentage points from 50 percent to 79 percent.

So while it is troubling to see the Democrats drift away from Israel, the increased support from Republicans has more than made good for those loses. Indeed, a deep dive into the Pew survey shows that sympathy for Israel is greater than that for the Palestinians among men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, the educated, the uneducated, Protestants (both mainline and evangelical), Catholics and yes, even Democrats, though the 27 to 25 percentage point margin there is dangerously close.

The annual Gallup survey on Israel tells much the same story with some fluctuations over the years, but averaging the same lopsided margin every year. In 2017, Gallup showed Israel with a 71-27-percentage point favorable/unfavorable rating.

While its foes spread myths about an all-powerful Israel lobby or dabble with anti-Semitic memes about Jewish money, the steady support for aid to Israel in Congress during the last 30 years is a function of that across-the-board backing the polls show. For a variety of reasons, including religion, most Americans have always been sympathetic to Zionism and liked Israel.

Though the prospect of an increasingly left-leaning Democratic Party coming back to power would make things a lot less cozy for the Israeli government, having survived eight years of President Barack Obama’s crusade to save Israel from itself, it’s likely that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his successors will manage the test of dealing with the next Democratic president, whoever he or she turns out to be. For all of the problems that an increasingly left-wing Democratic Party in which Scoop Jackson-style politicians become less common will pose, support for Israel is still the view of the majority of Americans. It’s also just as likely as not that the next Democratic president will be more sympathetic to Israel than Obama.

Yet while those wearing mourning for the Pew numbers about the Democrats need to calm down, there is a more serious problem for friends of Israel: the decline in Jewish support. As Alan Hoffman, CEO of The Jewish Agency, noted earlier this week, Israelis are rapidly losing the backing of young Jews.

Speaking at a conference sponsored by the Israel Democracy Institute, Hoffman cited a study that showed support for Israel had dropped 32 percent between 2010 and 2016. He said the situation has only gotten worse since the election of President Trump in 2016, as the overwhelmingly liberal college students increasingly see Israel as antithetical to their worldview.

He’s right, but most of the analyses of this problem are rooted in a misunderstanding of what is causing this trend.

Most observers are quick to blame the policies of Netanyahu’s government. Others say the overwhelming backing for Israel from Republicans and Trump supporters is creating a backlash in which anti-Zionists are now seen as somehow more in tune with the liberal Jewish values than the Jewish state. A belief in the dubious doctrine of intersectionality not only leads many young Jews to see Israel as an oppressor, but to give a pass to Palestinian terrorists and homophobes for their illiberal society.

But the real problem here isn’t Netanyahu, settlements or even a belief that anything Trump likes is somehow wrong. Rather, it is a declining sense of Jewish peoplehood.

The results of the 2013 Pew survey of Jewish Americans left little room for doubt about the demographic implosion of non-Orthodox Jewry in this country. While most Jews still feel pride in being Jewish, increasingly lower numbers associate that with anything having to do with religion or Zionism. Indeed, many have come to view the notion of a parochial religious or ethnic identity as racist by definition. The liberal values they venerate have come wrongly to be seen as rendering even a Jewish state that was free from faults as illegitimate.

So rather than batter Israel for defending itself against its enemies, American Jews would do far better to concentrate on funding schools, camps and trips to Israel that reinforce Jewish identity. Support for Israel among those who have benefited from these experiences is far higher than those who haven’t been given those opportunities.

That—and not what is going on among Democrats or whether Netanyahu is living up to reasonable liberal expectations—is the true challenge facing U.S. friends of Israel.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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